[30 May 2013]
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel The Namesake, a young student is told by his grandfather to “read all the Russians, and then reread them.” Literary recommendations don’t come much more rock-solid than that — and the fact that both the characters in question are Bengalis living in India in the middle of the 20th century argues for this one’s universal applicability.
As it happens, American and British readers get a new chance to confirm Lahiri’s proposition with the release of The Enchanted Wanderer, a collection of stories and novellas by Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895) that is the latest project of indefatigable translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, whose renderings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, among others, have effectively become the new standards over the past two decades.
The Enchanted Wanderer aims to fill an important gap. Among English-language readers, Leskov has never enjoyed anything like the name recognition of his mighty contemporaries (the “bearded titans”, to use an immortal phrase from Don DeLillo). Some might know him as the author of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, a short story that became the basis of Shostakovich’s opera of the same name, and more ardent Russophiles might have been inspired to look up Walter Benjamin’s essay (in Illuminations) “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov”. But pre-Amazon and pre-Alibris, good luck finding the works of the man himself in any bookstore, unless you were lucky enough to come across a used copy of the David Magarshack translations that periodically resurfaced every couple of decades.
It may be that a kind of authorial elusiveness has kept Leskov from being assimilated into our literary tradition until now. Because, as quickly becomes evident in The Enchanted Wanderer, his specialty is a slippery kind of ventriloquism. In story after story, an anonymous first-person narrator (someone not to be confused with any identifiable “Nikolai Leskov”) cedes the narrative to a storyteller, someone he encounters at a party or on a train who starts spinning a yarn in a lively colloquial style. The tales often ramble and digress, an un-literary device that only adds to their air of verisimilitude, and we receive regular sly hints that the person telling the story can’t entirely be trusted.
It’s a method that makes for an exceptional versatility. You soon realize that a Leskov story can be about almost anything — from an elegant foray into the supernatural like “The White Eagle”, to racy comic sketches like “The Devil-Chase” and “The Spirit of Madame de Genlis” that are also deft satires of bourgeois mores. The approach is democratic in other ways, too. Leskov is notably at home among the peasant and working classes, whom he treats with a bracing lack of sentimentality (although one story here, “The Toupee Artist”, is the most upsetting depiction of life under serfdom that I have read).
Leskov lost me only once in 17 stories. That was with “The Sealed Angel”, a mind-numbing account of a religious sect and its desperate quest to restore a sacred icon that summoned dread memories, from another lifetime, of grappling with terms like iconostasis and The Old Believers in Russian Studies classes. (The translators’ slightly overzealous footnotes to this story only heighten the sense of being transported back into academic purgatory.)
But more importantly, there are two great stories in The Enchanted Wanderer that deserve special mention. Together they more than justify an investment in this 600-page tome.
“The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” centers on Katerina Izmailova, the bored young wife of a provincial merchant who takes a lover while her husband travels on business. Soon the two of them are conspiring to do in not only the husband but also his father, and both victims are such irredeemable oafs that in this first stage the story can be read as a kind of nasty fun, James M. Cain transposed to the Russian steppe. But Katerina’s third murder, whose details won’t be revealed here, is a horror that puts her, and our responses to what’s going on, in a different realm altogether. (It’s telling that in his own, marginally more sympathetic portrayal of Katerina Izmailova, Shostakovich leaves this crime out; some things, it seems, can’t be shown on stage even in a Russian opera.)
That murder finally brings the law down on Katerina and her lover, and leads to a harrowing odyssey among the criminal underclass as the two of them march to Siberia with their fellow convicts. Leskov is pitiless as the story moves toward its brutal conclusion: among his criminals there are none of the quasi-mystic seers we remember from Dostoevsky, and the detached authorial voice, with its refusal of any psychologizing, makes this savage milieu all the more chilling to contemplate.
The book’s other heavyweight contender is its title novella. “The Enchanted Wanderer” is one Ivan Severyanych Flyagin, an older monk recounting his life story to fellow passengers on a boat: within a couple of chapters it becomes clear that this is such an extraordinary life, marked by events so extreme, that we quickly leave behind ordinary realism in favor of something that Walter Benjamin characterized as “a hybrid between fairy tale and legend.”
It turns out that before giving himself to God, Ivan Severyanych has been (among other professions) a soldier, servant, horse trader, bodyguard and actor; has suffered unimaginable hardships at the hands of Tartars, Gypsies, and upper-class Russians; has committed his own share of sins and then some; and has contended variously with the bottle, the Devil, the Lord, and a supernatural power he knows as “magnetism”.
He relates these adventures with a disarming conversational frankness — a tone that allows for some impressive shifts of register. When Ivan comes across the corpses of two Christian missionaries who have been decapitated by the Tartars, the moment is bitterly funny in the way of a frontier tall tale; only a little while later, an episode involving a mistreated Gypsy girl, Grusha, is not only heart-wrenching but a welcome reminder that as bad as things get for Ivan Severyanych in this world, most of the women have it even worse.
A single reading of “The Enchanted Wanderer” doesn’t begin to exhaust its meanings, and individual readers will undoubtedly parse Ivan Severyanych’s journey in their own ways — some secular, others not. But from the deprivations and cruelties of 19th century Russian life, Leskov created a supreme fictional tribute to the human capacity for survival. It’s a story that deserves to be far-better known among English-language readers; to further the work Pevear and Volokhonsky have done here, the publisher should quarry both this and “The Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk” off into standalone paperback editions, the way they did with a couple of the stories in the duo’s Tolstoy collection from a couple of years back.
No account of The Enchanted Wanderer would be complete without a salute to the special quality of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s achievement. Leskov’s wayward narrative voices must have presented a challenge even for these translators, and the wonder is that they come through with so many laugh-out-loud touches that give us some sense of what this writer must be like in the original. Choice malapropisms abound — “odorly” for “orderly”, “veritations” for “variations” — and I was also taken with their rendering of rusty Russian French in coinages like poorkhwa and fooliton. It’s not too much to hope that with this latest edition Leskov’s own wanderings, in and out of the English language, may have finally come to an end.